Evidence for Learning: Learning styles

Learning styles

A summary of the research evidence on learning styles in the Australasian context.

The Teaching & Learning Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of learning styles on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on learning styles. In contrast to the Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by school leaders, teachers and students. This information is valuable for school leaders and teachers interested in finding out more about particular examples of learning style interventions that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.

This Australasian Research Summary was generated by Melbourne Graduate School of Education in 2016. 

The idea underpinning learning styles is that individuals all have a particular approach to or style of learning. The theory is that learning will therefore be more effective or more efficient if students are taught using the specific style or approach that has been identified as their learning style. For example, students categorised as having a listening’ learning style, could be taught more through storytelling and discussion and less through traditional written exercises.

Despite being popular in education, there is little reliable empirical evidence to support the concept of learning styles. There is even some evidence suggesting that instructional approaches based on learning styles can be harmful to students.

A general Internet search revealed a high level of support in Australia for the notion of learning styles, among government departments, schools and universities. Most of the articles found in the literature search were written by academics (often working in STEM fields) trying to improve the educational outcomes of their students. While these articles have been excluded due to this review’s focus on schools, it is important to acknowledge that the learning styles approach continues to be used by educators in other sectors.

Hattie (2009) synthesised eight meta-analyses of learning styles, and found the mean effect size to be d=0.41. Despite the medium positive effect size, he argues that there is little evidence for the effectiveness of this intervention. Instead, he attributes the positive outcomes reported in a number of the studies to be a consequence of researchers confusing learning styles’ with learning strategies’.

Hattie and Yates (2013) conclude that there is no recognised evidence suggesting that knowing or diagnosing learning styles will help you to teach your students any better than not knowing their learning style’ (p. 176). Their review implies that the popularity of learning styles is due to effective marketing of associated tests and assessments, rather than its educational value. The authors identified several problems with learning styles theory and research. For example, it is simplistic to claim that people have one dominant learning style that they use across contexts; rather, it is more feasible that people learn in a variety of ways and adjust their approach depending on the context. Another example is that there appears to be little evidence that self-reports of preferred learning style actually predict learning outcomes. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that all students benefit from engaging in a variety of learning activities, not just those targeted toward their learning styles.

Nevertheless, some educators believe learning styles to be an essential aspect of working with disabled students, and that teachers should use this intervention strategy (Pearce, 2009). More broadly, Prestia (2010) outlined her positive experience using an adaptive learning styles approach as a teacher in an all-boys high school. However, she also encouraged her students to use alternative learning styles, depending on the context.

Other studies have attempted to relate learning styles to academic achievement. For example, Ren (2013) found that assessment results varied as a function of learning styles in a high school Chinese language class. Specifically, participants with auditory learning styles tended to perform better on oral tasks, and those with kinaesthetic learning styles generally scored better on written tasks. In another study, high achieving music students were more likely to be categorised as kinaesthetic learners, but this was possibly a result of the non-probability sampling that was skewed towards high achievers (Camp & Jeanneret, 2011). Importantly, these studies did not assess if a learning styles intervention would improve learning outcomes, and instead demonstrated that particular styles may predict students’ grades.

Other factors also influence how learners are categorised, with age and gender found to predict students’ learning styles and how they engage in science classes (Pfeiffer, 2011). It is thus possible that other factors might mediate or moderate the relationship between learning styles and learning outcomes.

Categorising students on the basis learning styles also creates issues of labelling. Lovegrove (2010) examined Indigenous literacy education and argued that although Indigenous students are often believed to have different learning styles to their non-indigenous peers, this type of labelling is ultimately unhelpful. The author highlights that this type of categorisation may perpetrate negative stereotypes about Indigenous students and fails to acknowledge that they are not a single homogenous group. However, there are researchers advocating for this type of categorisation, with O’Toole (2014) arguing that all Indigenous peoples share common learning style themes that differ from those of non-indigenous people.

Camp, F., & Jeanneret, N. (2011). Is musical achievement linked to learning styles? An investigation into a Year 6 instrumental band program. In E. Mackinlay & D. Forrest (Eds.) Making Sound Waves: Diversity, Unity, Equity: Proceedings of the XVIII National Conference (pp. 96 – 102). Parkville, VIC: Australian Society for Music Education.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London; New York: Routledge.

Hattie, J., & Yates, G. C. (2013). Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

Lovegrove, J. (2010). See me, hear me: from teacher belief and pedagogy to classroom practice for indigenous students (Doctoral dissertation, Murdoch University, Western Australia, Australia). Retrieved from http://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/3617/

O’Toole, S. (2014). Indigenous learning styles – common themes from around the world. Training & Development, 41(2), 8 – 10.

Pearce, M. (2009). The Inclusive Secondary School Teacher in Australia. International Journal of Whole Schooling, 5(2), 1 – 15.

Pfeiffer, L. G. (2011). A comparison of the preferred learning styles of year 5, year 7 and year 9 students in science using the science laboratory environment inventory (SLEI) and a cooperative learning unit of work based on multiple intelligences. (Doctoral dissertation, Curtin University, Western Australia, Australia). Retrieved from https://espace.curtin.edu.au/b…

Prestia, J. (2010). Know the style of your audience. TLN Journal, 17(3), 6 – 8.

Ren, G. (2013). Which Learning Style is Most Effective in Learning Chinese as a Second Language. Journal of International Education Research, 9(1), 21 – 32.

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Learning styles; learning preferences; learning theories; cognitive styles; cognitive preferences; thinking styles; individual differences; multiple intelligences; approaches to learning.